Mark Carrington's first-half header kept MK Dons outside hopes of a play-off spot alive, as they beat Leyton Orient in front of over 14,000 fans at stadiummk.
Carrington's fifth goal of the season, nodded in cutely from Aaron Wilbraham's pass, secured a deserved three points for Paul Ince's side, who capitalised on dropped points from the three teams above them. Their task remains an uphill one with sixth-placed Millwall still seven points adrift, but a victory over fifth-placed Swindon at stadiummk on Tuesday would certainly have the top six looking over their shoulders.
It was less than spectacular from Ince's team, but at times they produced football to match the carnival atmosphere on Family Dons Day. But the Dons chief will be content with a first win in three games, particularly in the context of the day's other results. With Andros Townsend absent having been recalled to parent club Tottenham, Ince opted for a change of system, with Peter Leven, Mark Randall and Carrington operating as a trio in the middle of the park.
On only his second league start for the Dons, Randall was clearly intent on making an impression. The on-loan Arsenal youngster played with all his usual elegance and style, but quickly showed he would not be out-muscled with a bone-shuddering tackle on Sean Thornton. With Leven pulling the strings from a deep-lying position, tidying up almost every loose ball in midfield, the Dons slowly started to mount pressure - Luke Chadwick's touch deserting him with the goal in sight and Dean Lewington marginally too high with a header from Leven's corner.
But their attacks were promising and when Carrington gave them the lead on 31 minutes, ghosting into the box to cutely head home Aaron Wilbraham's lifted pass, it was an advantage they could probably claim to justify. Orient's best chances in the first half both fell to on-loan Blackburn winger Aaron Doran, returning to stadiummk after a month on loan with the Dons earlier this season. But twice the Irishman was denied by the charging David McCracken.
Randall was marginally off target with a delightful chip on 38 minutes, but the Dons looked happy to take a lead into the break after a relatively scrappy half. They should have been further in front seven minutes after the break when Lewington's quick free-kick caught three Orient defenders in a slumber and Chadwick scampered clear. Coming in from the left, a shot with his favoured right-foot looked the best option, but his left-footed attempt was repelled by Jamie Jones.
Randall, looking increasingly impressive in the middle of the park, continued to threaten in pockets of space behind Wilbraham, stinging one long-range drive just past Jones' left-hand post. And after the same man combined with Carrington and Wilbraham to give Chadwick another sight inside the box, only a solid block from Stephen Purches prevented Jones being exposed once more. It was turning into a good spell for the home side after Thornton survived a huge shout for handball inside his own box on 65 minutes, Lewington was only narrowly too high with a header from Leven's free-kick.
Having seen their side mugged by late goals on several occasions this season, Dons fans grew increasingly nervous as the 80-minute mark ticked through. The sight of Willy Gueret flying to his right to repel a well-struck James Scowcroft volley did little to ease their anxiety. Sean O'Hanlon's introduction, his first stadiummk appearance since April last year, went some way to counter-acting the big Orient substitute in the closing stages and Dean Morgan, a Dons replacement in the final few minutes, might have put the seal on it with a sweetly-struck 30-yarder that went just wide.
But points win prizes at this time of year, so the sound of the final whistle was a more-than-welcome one all around stadiummk. A similar outcome against fifth-placed Swindon on Tuesday and the race could be right back on.
MK Dons (4-3-3): Gueret; Woodards, Tunnicliffe (O'Hanlon 87), McCracken, Lewington (c); Randall, Leven, Carrington; Easter (Stirling 90), Wilbraham, Chadwick (Morgan 84).
Subs not used: Doumbe, Searle, Davis, Howell.
Goals: Carrington 31
Booked: Wilbraham, Randall, Stirling Leyton Orient (4-4-2): Jones; Purches (c), Mkandawire, Chorley, Cave-Brown; Doran (Tehoue 63), Smith, Thornton (Chambers 80), Demetriou; McGleish (Scowcroft 63), Jarvis. Subs not used: Morris, Daniels, Baker, Mike.
Booked: Smith, Tehoue
Attendance: 14,323 (1,519 away)
Referee: Danny McDermid (Hampshire)